Stand alone

Guns For Angels

Ann

My sister was all the family I had. She was taken from me and now, someone wants me dead, too. Not sure why.

I’m sure I’m not going to give my life up, though. I’m not going to let them get away with my sister’s murder.

The new me will try, anyway.

You see, when she was alive I could live in brightness and peace. Now I have to accept the darkness within me. After all, isn’t life about balance? Ironically, the man who can teach me how to embrace the shadows is broken, hopeless, and angry. Mark is also the only one I trust to lead me through my heart’s night, and back into the light.

The one I trust to keep us alive.

Mark

A favor to a teammate: pick up two girls in trouble, take them to the Team’s safehouse. Should have been easy. It was not.

Then someone killed one of my team, one of my brothers. Now it’s personal.

They want me, too. I can deal with that. But they want Ann.  The only person who cut through me, who woke me, who grabbed my hand and guided me back into life one smile at the time.

I’ll be damned if I let them have anything.

Not. One. Damned. Thing.

From NY to sunny Miami, Ann and Mark run into a maze of lie, betrayal, and death, where love is the only, terrifying certainty. And when truth unravels, they will have to risk all to survive.

Excerpt

Chapter 2

Ann swallowed hard as stench scraped her throat.

In truth, the real issue was the absence of any pleasant smell, like clean breeze from an open window, lemony traces of cleanser or, at least, the fake ocean fragrance of an air freshener. Instead, the room was stifling, filled with heavy, stale air and old, cheap perfume that hanged around in sickly sweet clouds. The hotel room didn’t stink though, so she blamed her strong reaction to stress. 

Whatever the reason, she pressed a hand on her twisted stomach and stepped closer to the man. He might be huge, too physical, and unmoved by normal human-to-human interactions, but he smelled just fine. It was either retching or keeping close to him and his soapy scent–the first good thing in a horrific night. 

Maybe the Universe was getting on her side again. 

Nice try, Ann conceded, but way not enough and badly executed. For as good as his scent was, she couldn’t spend the night with her nose pressed against his shirt. “Hey, can we open a window?” she asked.

“No.”

“Of course not. Will you bite my head off if I ask why?”

“You wanna people sneaking in and cutting your throat?”

“Not really.”

His lips curved into a sardonic smile. “There’s your answer.”

He marched to the window, checked the derelict locks. “It’s not gonna stop them,” he said more to himself than to her. “But it’ll give me time.”

“What do I do if they come?” Ann asked, forgetting her trouble with the room for a moment.

“Stay close to me and out of my way.”

“That’s… that’s tricky.”

“Make it work.”

From the middle of the room, she followed his inspection feeling more relieved each time he nodded. Even his cursing someone called Mouse was, somehow, reassuring. “If that stupid ass doesn’t call, I’ll throttle his skinny neck with my bare hands.” 

His long, violent mumbled monolog went on, but its soothing quality disappeared when she realized she needed a restroom. She eyed the stains on the once beige, now dirt-brown walls–a real touch of class. 

Okay, she needed the toilet, but what if Mr. Cholera was using it? It seemed like the place for it. Or even worse, ugly, hairy, dark spiders, creeping down the ceiling as she was sitting on the toilet. She would pass out, and the man would find her with her panties around her ankles, her eyes rolled back, and a rivulet of drool from her mouth. So cool. 

She tried to focus on the bed and not on spiders, but the headboard leaned on the left and the blanket sported stains impossible to define. The perfect breeding ground for bed bugs. 

Ann felt her eyes sting furiously. She wanted to go home, to her clean, spider free home, and call her sister. She wanted to hear Mary saying something, anything. 

Mark’s voice, mockingly reassuring, reached her a split second before tears did. “If you’re worried about sharing the bed you can relax, angel. I’m not in the mood.”

“I wasn’t… never mind. I need to use the bathroom.”

She had opened the bathroom door when the meaning of his words emerged from the fog and wiped away her attempt not to lose it.

Remaining in the bedroom, she slammed the bathroom door in front of her with all her strength. She had the deep satisfaction of seeing him snap into action, gun in his hand and fire in his eyes. He was ready to fight, but she charged first. “Do you really think would be in the mood? Let’s put aside for a second what happened to my sis… what happened tonight. Even on my best day I wouldn’t be in the mood with a jackass like you. I don’t like angry men. I need the toilet.”

* * * * *

He blinked at the stained wood of the bathroom door once; twice; a third time, as he tried to breathe. Nobody called Mark Carson a jackass. Nobody. Except a tiny lady with blond curls and blue eyes, it seemed. 

Any other person would be bleeding unconscious by now. He would never raise a finger on a woman, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t wish she were a dude and dream about breaking his nose.

He leaned his back against the wall, watched her amble back to the bed. In a peaceful face, her eyes gave away a deeper, hopeless sorrow. She sat on the blanket, straightened her back and closed her eyes, stretching her neck sideways a few times. She was a pretty little thing, all right, reminded him of those porcelain dolls his sister had as a kid, all eyes and peachy, pale skin. Maybe now those dolls belonged to his nice, who knew. 

Ann didn’t move when his cell rang. It was Mouse, who graced him with a call. He had better have some answers. “Talk.”

“It’s bad, Bear, worse than I thought. Put it together with what Mary told me, it’s deep shit.”

Mark drew the thin curtain with the tip of his fingers and peeked at the parking lot. “Give me all of it, I’m sick of not knowing.”

“To sum up, I talked with Snake and we’re in. I–”

“You talked to him? The guys aren’t picking up my calls, why?”

“What do I know? I do know that something is weird, though. Listen, keep the girl safe until I figure out what’s going on.”

“Are you telling me we still have nothing?”

“There are things I need to square out before I can give you a report that makes sense, and…”

“What now?”

Something beeped in the background as Mouse clicked on the keyboard. “Something wrong is happening to my computer. I don’t like it,” Mouse said, matter-of-factly. “Listen, the plane to Savannah takes off in 90 minutes, I’ll catch up with you there. Be careful.”

“Mouse–” 

Mark thought about hitting his head against the wall when Mouse dropped the line. So, nobody respected hierarchy any longer. A girl called him names, his team didn’t bother to take up his calls and when they did, they hung up on him. 

Fuck!

All right, he would get something from the girl. Probably she didn’t know much more than he did, but he wasn’t alive because he waited. He had to do something to clarify the situation so he could doze off for few minutes. His eyes snapped to her. 

She was fast asleep, in an odd sleeping position. Her feet were on the floor, but her body had fallen on one side, as if she’d deflated.

The palm of his hand glided over the top of his dark crew cut, and then down to rub the raspy stubble on his face. 

With soundless steps he walked to her. Gently, as if she was really a porcelain doll, he stretched her legs across the bed. He didn’t touch her clothes, but he went so far as to untie her shoes and take them off. Then, he laid the thin blanket over her.

She sighed, and snuggled into the old bed. 

Mark sat on the wobbly chair beside the window and waited.

* * * * *

Ann woke up slowly.

She had such a strange dream. No, not a dream, but a nightmare that made her want to call Mary as soon as her brain rebooted again. 

And why did her bed stink like dirty dust? Oh, well, it could be cleaned. She waited for some familiar sounds of her home–the coffee maker, the buzzing of the fridge, the busy streets. 

If silence shook her awake, the imposing man sitting on a chair by the window shoved her back to reality. With a cruel smile, pain jabbed her heart and she curled some more into the blanket. 

The man’s head turned in her direction; his eyes located her. 

Ann didn’t want to move, so she stayed where she was, watching him watching her. Even in that moment of quiet, his brows were knitted in combative concentration, his jaw ruler-straight and tight. His stillness had nothing to do with a pacified spirit and everything to do with control. He leaned over, resting his elbows on his knees.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to fall asleep,” Ann said.

“After a shock the body needs rest.”

She sure was in shock now, at the sound of his voice. Still assertive, still full of authority, but lacking anger, mockery or any other negative note. If he were someone else, she would have described him as ruggedly gentle.

“What about you? Did you rest?” she asked.

“I wasn’t in shock.”

“Oh.” She sat, flattened imaginary wrinkle on the blanket. “Well, I’m awake, you can sleep for a while. I will see that everything stays… good. Peaceful. Regular.” A tentative smile curved her lips as her shoulders sagged. “I’m not familiar with the macho Army vernacular.”

“I wasn’t in the Army.”

“Really? You have the looks for it.”

“Marine.”

“Is it that different?”

“Very.”

Slowly, as if he had all night, he got up and sat on her side of the bed. The mattress squeaked and bent under his weight. Ann settled a little further away.

“Tell me what happened,” he asked.

“You’re creepy when you’re kind.”

“I can switch back any time.”

“No, kind’s good. I’m Ann Holloway, by the way.”

Something looking a lot like surprise shone for a blink in his dark eyes, as his hand swallowed the one she offered. “Bear.” 

She frowned. “That’s your name?”

“It’s the one you need to know.”

“I’m not going to call you that. Tell me your name, the real one.”

It had been years since the last time someone used his real name, Mark thought. It didn’t change their relationship, it didn’t make them friends or anything. It was just his name, he could say it. “Mark. Mark Carson.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mark Carson. I thought it was a good thing to introduce myself as there are people trying to kill us.”

“You. There are people trying to kill you, not us. Why?”

“I have no clue.”

“What happened last night?”

She would had to face what had happened, sooner or later, so Ann took a fortifying breath. “It was strange from the beginning. Mary never visited, she’s… she was a very smart executive, owned a club in Miami. I was surprised when she barged in, telling me to pack something, we were going on vacation.” Distrust made her stiffen. “Hey, how do I know you’re not one of them? That I can trust you?”

“You’re breathing.”

Ann wasn’t all that convinced, but it made sense. “I guess.”

“My patience’s running thin.”

“All right, all right. Where was I?”

“Your sister told you you’d go on vacation with her,” he growled between his teeth.

“Oh, yeah. So, I didn’t want to go… I mean, I did want to go, but I couldn’t. I have a business too, you see? I can’t just go. She started to pack for me like a mad woman. It scared me, she’d always been the even-tempered, well-mannered one. Then…”

She swallowed hard. 

“The window crashed, probably in the bedroom, and the door sprang open. Mary shouted at me to run. I was close to the kitchen window, so I went down the fire escape and I started running. I heard them behind me, I think they tried to shoot at me but maybe it was just my imagination, it wasn’t noisy like in the movies. I didn’t stop to see if Mary was with me. I was sure she was, she’s always with me when we’re in trouble but…”

Ann pressed a hand on her mouth, shut her eyes against the memory.

“Did you see anyone?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Ah, just a glimpse of one of the men. Tall, I guess. He wore black from head to toe and… he had blond hair, in a ponytail. I’m sorry.”

Mark looked at the window for a long moment. “Mouse had better tell me something more.”

He started to get up, but she stretched a hand over his arm, hard and tanned granite. Surprise at that touch shone in his eyes and it was gone a breath after, but he sat again. 

“I told you what you wanted to know,” she said. “I have questions, too.”

“We’ll keep you alive. It’s enough.”

“I’ve just lost my sister.” The meaning of her words bit at her eyes and she had to battle away tears. “There are people trying to kill me and I’m in a terribly bad motel with a man who’s helping me, but in a very rude way. You must see that I need more than your name.”

“Bad motel owners don’t ask questions, this one was too drunk to even see my face. That’s why we’re here.”

“That’s not what I asked and I’m running short of patience myself, Mark.”

She had meant to be at least a little intimidating, but the low rumbling shaking in his chest sounded like a laugh. It was a good sound, given the circumstances.

He scratched his chin, taking some time before the answer. “The Boss calls us the Team. We help people.”

“I thought the police was all about that.”

“Sometimes you can’t call the police. Sometimes you don’t want to.”

“Why wouldn’t you call the police if you’re in trouble?”

“People have reasons. Bottom line is, they’re in trouble, we help them, they pay us.”

“How do Mary and I fit into this?”

“Mouse called me. He knew your sister and–”

“How? I’ve never heard her talking about a Mouse. Not a person called Mouse, anyway. Is that his real name? He must have had such a hard time in school.”

Mark’s voice was dangerously controlled. “When I talk, you don’t.”

Ann mouthed a sorry, gestured zipping her mouth. 

“I was still in New York after our last case. He worried about a friend of his, Mary. He asked me to see that she and her sister were safe.”

“Safe from what?”

“It looks like your sister stuck her nose into something she shouldn’t have. Mouse convinced her to disappear for a while. We’ll rendezvous in Savannah.”

Ann nodded. “So, you help people, you’re borderline outlaws, and you’re difficult to find. You guys are the A-Team. Hey, stop glaring at me, I didn’t mean to insult you! The A-Team was very cool, and they always won.”

“Let’s go before I hand you over.”

“I’m sure you’d love that. There’s just one tiny problem: you don’t know who they are.” Ann got off the bed, and stretched her legs before she stood in front of him, hands on her hips. “I want to know who did this to Mary, who dared to hurt my sister, break into my home and kick me out of it. You’re officially hired.”

He stood, towering over her and nodded. She had the feeling that from a man like Mark Carson, a nod was all she needed.